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Friday, August 9, 2013

Lethal Injections: The History of Death House Pharmacology

     By 2010, 35 states still impose the death penalty in cases involving inmates who have committed the most heinous murders. Not all of these states, however, actually carry out the executions. In the states that do, the mode of execution is lethal injection. The electric chair has been replaced by chemicals. Inmates are no longer electrocuted, they are poisoned to death.

     Death house executioners, in dispatching the condemned, administer a lethal cocktail comprised of three drugs. The first drug to go in--sodium thiopental--renders the recipient unconscious. The second chemical paralyzes the inmate while the third stops his heart. The key ingredient in the cocktail, the vodka in the screwdriver as it were, is the sodium thiopental, a drug used by all of the states where death row prisoners are actually executed.

     Late in 2010, the only company that manufactured sodium thiopental--mainly used as an anesthesia, and to induce medical comas--announced a shortage of the drug. A spokesperson for the Hospira company blamed the scarcity on a problem with the manufacturer's raw material suppliers. Cut off from the drug, executions in California, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Maryland were delayed.

     In December 2010, the executioner in Oklahoma who sent 58-year-old John David Duty to his grave for killing a cellmate, substituted sodium thiopental with a sedative used to treat severe epilepsy. The drug, pentobarbital, sold under the brand name Nembutal, was manufactured by a Danish company called Lundbeck. The pharmaceutical was also used to put down animals.

     In August 2011, an executioner in Virginia used pentobarbital as part of the lethal mix to kill a 30-year-old inmate named Jerry Jackson. Jackson had been convicted in 2002 for breaking into 88-year-old Ruth Phillips' house where he raped and murdered the woman. Phillips woke up to find him burglarizing the place. When she confronted the intruder, he sexually assaulted, then killed her. Following the Jackson execution, the Lundbeck company, objecting to one of its products being used to kill inmates, restricted the drug's distribution in an effort to keep it out of America's execution chambers.

     In 2011, 23 death row prisoners in the United States were either buried or cremated with pentobarbital in their blood. In Ohio that year, for the first time in the nation, an executioner dispatched a prisoner by using pentobarbital only. Death penalty opponents, claiming that the one-drug method caused inmates to die more slowly, objected to the procedure.

     In March 2012, with the cost of pentobarbital going through the roof, the state of Texas spent $1,200 on the deadly cocktail used to kill 52-year-old Keith Thurmond. The condemned man had been convicted in 2002 of murdering his estranged wife and her lover during an argument over child custody.

     Texas prison administrators, in July 2012, adopted Ohio's one-drug policy in an effort to save taxpayers' money. The executioner injected pentobarbital into 33-year-old Yokamon Hearn fourteen years after he had murdered a Dallas stockbroker. A death chamber physician pronounced the prisoner dead 25 minutes following his lethal injection.

     In 2012, the states of Arizona, Washington, Idaho, and Georgia also began executing inmates with pentobarbital only.

     Correction officials in Texas, in July 2013, announced that they were running out of pentobarbital. Because the European Commission, in December 2011, had ordered companies in the European Union to stop exporting the drug to the United States for execution, states had no way of replenishing their supply of the drug. Because several prisoners were scheduled to die during the second half of 2013, this was a problem for the people tasked to kill them.

     Execution states will either have to find another lethal drug that's available on the market, dust off their old electric chairs, or stop executing prisoners. I'm sure they'll find another drug. 

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